THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

07 December 2016

Commemorating the Russian Revolution

Last week the British Library announced some of our forthcoming cultural highlights for 2017. Among them is a major exhibition to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. For the curators involved, this will be the culmination of many months of planning: deciding on the exhibition’s ‘storyline’ and selecting items from our rich collections to illustrate it, complemented by loans of artefacts from other institutions.

The exhibition will begin in the reign of the last Tsar, looking at social and political conditions in Russia in the early years of the 20th century, and exploring the growth of revolutionary movements. Exhibits will include the lavish album published to commemorate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and, at the other end of the political spectrum, a letter from Lenin (under the pseudonym ‘Jacob Richter’) applying for a reader’s ticket for the British Museum Library.

LR.25.c.20-Khodynka
Crowds celebrating the Coronation of Nicholas II from the album Les Solennités du saint couronnement... (St Petersburg, 1896). The scene here later turned to tragedy when there was a stampede for souvenir gifts, food and drink in which over 1,300 people were killed.

Among the items illustrating the Revolution itself, alongside images of events and key players, will be Order No. 1, published by the Petrograd Soviet in March 1917. This initiated a new era of soldier–officer relations, requiring officers to treat soldiers respectfully and giving soldiers the same rights as civilians when off duty, overturning centuries of traditional military discipline.

Order no. 1
Prikaz No. 1 (Order no. 1), 14 (1) March 1917. HS.74/1870

The Civil War which engulfed Russia in the aftermath of the Revolution is also examined, with material from both sides of the conflict. A striking White Army recruitment poster aimed at Muslim communities in the Caucasus is a reminder of the huge geographical, ethnic and linguistic scope of Russia and of the conflict that arose from the Revolution.

Recruiting Poster 1856.g.8.(30)
White Army recruituing poster, with text in four langauges: Russian, Arabic, Circassian and Nogay. 1856.g.8.(30)

The combination of War, Revolution and Civil War brought huge problems to Russia, and the tragedy of famine for people on all sides and none of the conflict. For many supporters – or perceived supporters – of the old order, the Revolution also led to exile from their homeland. Meanwhile the Bolsheviks were trying to consolidate and maintain power and to create and celebrate their new world. Drives for popular literacy and to encourage workers’ co-operation led to the creation of material such as a striking hand-painted and hand-lettered ‘wall newspaper’ produced by a local women’s committee in Yalta. It contains reports on their joint achievements, amateur poetry and stories intended to inspire and promote new communist values.

Ialtinskaia-delegatka-1927
Ialtinskaia delegatka (The Yalta Female Delegate), hand-lettered wall newspaper, 1927. The four women pictured are the main authors and artists.
Add MS 57556.

The Bolsheviks also hoped to export the revolution, and Socialist revolutionary movements flourished briefly in several European countries immediately after the First World War. At the same time, many of Russia’s former imperial possessions fought for independence from the new Russian state with greater or lesser degrees of success.

Red Army Alphabet World on Fire-Cup.401.g.25
Exporting Revolution: in this ‘Red Army Alphabet’ the letter G stands for the Russian word for ‘to burn’ (goret’). The picture caption reads: ‘The Earth burns with a fire / Lit by the worker’s hand.’ Dmitri Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa (Moscow, 1921). Cup.401.g.25

As well as the familiar figures and key players of the Revolution – the Romanovs, Rasputin, Lenin, Trotsky – the exhibition also seeks to convey the lives of ordinary people during these turbulent years, using quotations from contemporary diaries and letters. As the exhibition title, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, suggests, there are many sides to the story of the Revolution, and many aspects that have been mythologised by subsequent generations. We hope that our telling of that story, based on the most recent research, will introduce it to new audiences and bring a fresh perspective to those familiar with it.

The exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths will run from 28 April until 29 August 2017 in the PACCAR Gallery. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.